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#NotForSale Children and the Sex Trade in the Digital Age

WITH the advent of information communications technology (ICT), children are now easy prey to predators in the borderless sex trade that is continuously expanding via the World Wide Web, thereby necessitating a multisectoral cooperation to resolve this social menace, revealed the study commissioned by Plan International Philippines (PIP).

Dubbed “Children and the Sex Trade in the Digital Age: Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) in Metro Manila”, the research highlighted that social media, Internet accessibility and cheaper technology are providing new pathways to the sex trade.
As the nature of sex industry shifts from being primarily establishment-bound to a virtual online network, this leaves children in countries like the Philippines—one of the world leaders in social-media use—increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” said Dennis O’Brien, country director of PIP.
The presence of the Internet has really redefined the nature of sexual abuse of children at present. It now cuts across continents; it’s a borderless crime.
“Child abuse is not new. But the progress and greater access to ICT and the early introduction of this to children make them more vulnerable, thereby aggravating the problem. The absence of the physical contact does not remove it from the definition of abuse,” noted Sheila Estabillo, project manager of PIP.
CSEC is defined as “the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other form of consideration.” Its three primary and interrelated forms are exploitation of children for prostitution, pornography and trafficking for sexual objectives.
Prostitution, which flourished in the 1970s, continues to be a serious problem in the Philippines, as there is a high incidence of youngsters being exploited, particularly in tourism-related sectors.
“It’s the oldest profession. And so I think elimination is probably our biggest challenge and the most difficult,” said Dr. Elizabeth de Castro, lead researcher and executive director of Psychological Support and Children’s Rights Resource Center.
Overtime, the flesh trade has evolved. From the filthy streets of Ermita and dark alleys of other red-light districts of past decades, selling quickie pleasures has gone virtual nowadays. And this proves to be a growing business, as online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) alone is reported to be a P1-billion industry today.
“I remember reading about it and then thinking that it’s just only sort of like a peek into the severity and the kind of the gravity of the situation here in the Philippines and the urgency of actions needed for its resolution,” PIP Campaigns and Advocacy Specialist Paulene Santos told the BusinessMirror.
“What’s more intriguing is that in this industry, children are sort of seen as a reusable good. With children, you can abuse them over and over again. That’s why it’s such a lucrative industry,” she added.

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SINCE CSEC has become a perennial global problem, the entire research community agrees that available data and information had to be updated. The often-quoted estimate of 60,000 to 100,000 children in prostitution, for instance, lacks the support of solid research to generate reliable statistics.
“The earlier surveys which we still know are in the 1990s. That is how important this Plan [International Philippines] study is, because it is really a kickoff for a more in-depth kind of such,” De Castro said.
Conceding that the small number of respondents and participants in their research is not significant enough to convince the executive and legislative bodies to support whatever causes to protect the children from any form of sexual exploitation, she’s confident, though, that it’s providing the public a deeper understanding of this social problem and a broader perspective on the plight of the victims themselves.
“What we did was really just to show you cases. Thirty-two is not a number in statistics, it’s a sampling size that’s so small. But what we did was really go deep into the nature and scope of the problem, not in figures, but in depth,” she explained.
The study engaged children and adolescents involved in the sex trade, service providers, contact facilitators, and pimps or handlers—all of them entering the industry between the ages 13 and 18.
Per the results, 66 percent have either used their own social-media accounts or joined closed groups, where their services and contact details are advertised through promotional photos.
Some were engaged in cyber pornography performed inside sex dens, where they performed in front of webcams in various states of undress for paying viewers.

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As expected, poverty mainly drove the participants into the flesh trade. At least a third of them, or 38 percent, cited that supporting their family’s needs is the very reason they remained offering sex for a fee.
Lack of education, likewise, forced most of the respondents to think they could not find an alternative source of income. In fact, almost two-thirds of them, or 65.6 percent, did not graduate from high school, if they at all attended secondary school.
PIP believes that it’s important that gathering and analyzing such information—the lives and experiences of children in the sex industry, the analyses of the information and the recommendations regarding how best to address the problem of CSEC—involve the children themselves.
Relevant, child-centered and up-to-date evidence on CSEC is vital in lobbying and advocating for the protection of children to the government so, at the very least, child-protection mechanisms at all levels are functional.
“It’s very dangerous to make ‘guesstimates’ just to convince lawmakers. We have to convince them in terms of the facts that are at hand, and it’s already scary as it is. The potential victim is everyone and every all. The potential victims of this kind of phenomenon because it’s Internet-mediated are your children, my children, or other people’s children. This is because the base is no longer in brothels or freelancing on the street. The base is the home, the school, Internet cafés or wherever young people are congregated,” the lead researcher said.
One voice vs sexual exploitation
COINCIDING with the recent release of the study, PIP launched the #NotForSale campaign aimed at unifying all sectors to address the sex trade involving minors.
This initiative, which is part of the Girls Advocacy Alliance, is an opportunity to improve existing programs that combat the CSEC and raise public awareness so as to help lessen the alarmingly high incidence of such cases, according to Santos.
As indicated in the research, some of the participants are still not aware of most, if not all, of the government policies and programs available to provide them assistance.
In addition, about half of them don’t know which specific intervention they would need. Some victims had to deal with specific issues, such as the effectiveness and impartiality of law-enforcement agencies when handling cases of sexual exploitation.
“We are working with partners and supporters to create systematic change that can be felt on the ground so that victims are not retraumatized in the process of seeking justice, so that more incidents are reported to the authorities and so that there are less children that fall prey to commercial sexual exploitation because they and their guardians are aware of what commercial sexual exploitation is and how it can damage children for life,” she said.
WHILE condemning illicit acts that abuse the nation’s young populace, PIP is actively lobbying for proposed measures to prevent the children from engaging in any sexual activity.
Santos bared that they are pushing to raise the minimum of age for sexual consent in the country. At present, children as young as 12 years old in the Philippines can consent to sex.
The low age of the sexual consent makes children more vulnerable to being exploited,” she said.
This age, likewise, applies to the case of statutory rape in the country, according to lawyer Naomi Abarientos, deputy director of Children’s Legal Bureau Inc.
“So below 12 [years old], that’s absolutely prohibited [for everyone] to engage in sex with the child even if there is consent. That’s still rape,” she said.
Above 12, if the child consents or there’s no force, etc., that’s not necessarily rape. It could be other crimes—qualified seduction or other types of sexual exploitation under Republic Act 7610, but not necessarily rape.
“That’s what we are trying to say, that this age of giving consent should be raised to 15, not 12. Because 13-14-year-old children are also being victimized and you cannot charge those people with rape if these children actually consented, sort of,” she said.
As far as protecting the children from any sexual abuse, Santos noted there are “a lot of inconsistencies with other laws that have been passed”.
For instance, she cited a law for antihuman trafficking, wherein regardless of consent, a crime against trafficking, or CSEC, involving a child under 18 can be penalized.
“We want consistency in the law because we see that it’s an added layer of protection for children,” the campaigns and advocacy specialist of PIP pointed out.
Another cause that the group is pushing is the establishment of Preventive Education Act Against Human Trafficking, Santos added.
“Those are our two priority pieces of legislation [that we promote]. We see that there actually needs to be a support from the public, like public clamor, public demand, and this can only happen when we have the youth driving the information campaign and support from the different sectors,” she said.
In doing so, she said they are tapping partners from different sectors to help them push both the legislative agenda and also the mechanisms that they are trying to establish on ground in terms of responding to, as well as detection and prevention of CSEC.
Raising funds for child protection
WHILE efforts to confront the alarming CSEC cases in the country continue, Akbayan Partylist Rep. Tom Villarin said there’s not enough resources to put an end to this problem.
He told the BusinessMirror that government funding needs to be raised to further intensify the national initiatives to combat such social malady.
This year’s budget of P94 million for the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, which remains insufficient since the law was implemented in 2013, must be raised in the coming years.
“We’re alarmed given that the scope of the issue on human trafficking, specifically child trafficking, is so vague. The problem is really community-based and it also involves, of course, the families and communities. With such minuscule budget, that’s mainly for personnel salary and operational expenses. It’s not really enough,” he said.
The legislator, likewise, noted that the Department of Justice, which handles the appropriation, has other programs to initiate.
“[So] in terms of really doing the monitoring and having intervention and prosecution of child sexual abuses, I think they need an allocation from P300 million to P500 million,” he revealed. “It should be focused, basically, on cyber patrolling.”
Villarin suggested that collaboration will also be of big help with the Bureau of Immigration and interagency committee on antihuman trafficking to look at the database of foreign nationals who will enter the country.
Forging partnerships with international police and other global agencies involved in addressing CSEC, OSEC and human trafficking must be considered by the government.
Seeing the rise in Internet-based child sexual exploitation nationwide, he mentioned proposed laws that are still pending in Congress—such as the gender-based Internet violence that includes child sexual exploitation—must be given priority for enactment.
“Perhaps with this new law, we could regulate online activities of those involved in online child pornography and sexual exploitation,” he recommended.
Regarding community-based interventions, the lawmaker pushed for mandatory budget in the share of the internal revenue allotment of local government units.
The Akbayan party-list representative, likewise, cited that the 10-percent budget of the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) and the special education fund of LGUs be tapped in promoting awareness on child sexual exploitation.
“So these are the existing sources of funds that we can tap for these campaigns,” Villarin said of their proposals to address sexual abuse of children in the Philippines.

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